Monday, October 1, 2012

Happy 30th Anniversary, EPCOT!

Today, October 1st 2012, marks the 30th anniversary of EPCOT, the second park to open as part of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Though I'll always love The Magic Kingdom best of all, EPCOT runs a very close second for me, and I feel a particularly close connection to that park. You see, back on opening day, Oct. 1st 1982, I was gathered along with my parents and sister in the huge crowd of thousands patiently waiting outside the gate, incredibly excited to know that we would be among the first guests to enter this long anticipated new theme park that had such an interesting evolution.

Originally EPCOT had started out to be something far more ambitious, the "Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow", the personal model of an actual working city as envisioned by Walt Disney himself. Sadly, Walt passed away before this grand experiment could be put into motion, and the plan for an actual working and living community was ultimately decided to be too great a challenge for those who were now in charge of running Walt Disney Productions. To be honest, I don't blame them a bit. It would have been a huge venture, fraught with potential problems and financial risk, and without Walt there to guide them they seriously doubted whether they could make it work.  

So instead, they re-envisioned EPCOT Center as more of a permanent World's Fair, a showcase for new ideas in the area to be known as Future World, and a second area featuring a series of international pavilions circling a manmade lagoon to be called World Showcase. I would imagine that the success of Canada's own EXPO '67, that was a keystone of our centennial celebrations built in Montreal, was also a huge influence on how EPCOT Center evolved into the new theme park it would become.

I loved EPCOT in that first visit on opening day, as it was a thrill of a lifetime to see Disney history unfolding before my eyes. I have several favourite memories of that visit, including that first time experiencing The Universe of Energy, where the guests were directed to their seats in the large theatre before a film began on the history of oil formation during the age of the dinosaurs. As the film ended, the curtains parted and, much to our surprise, the "theatre" broke up into a series of huge ride vehicles that then lined up one by one to enter through the curtains into a fog-filled, musty smelling land of life-sized audio-animatronic dinosaurs. Perhaps audiences today are somewhat jaded, but back in 1982 this ride was truly state of the art! 

My other very fond personal memory happened at the finale of The American Adventure show in the American pavilion in World Showcase. Aside from the technical marvel of the very sophisticated audio-animatronic historic figures that told the story of America's turbulent beginnings and evolution, what really sticks with me is what happened during the filmed portion that plays out afterward. As the attraction's theme music swells majestically, images fade in and out toward us of many key moments in the 20th Century. When filmed images of John F. Kennedy, then Martin Luther King appear, there was spontaneous applause from the audience. But when they are followed not long thereafter by Walt Disney himself, the crowd rose to its feet applauding wildly. It was one of those moments where you had to be there to feel the huge emotional response in that theatre.

Two years after visiting EPCOT, I was to begin my own career at Disney, working initially in the Canadian Merchandising Division in Toronto for 6 years, then transferring to Florida to work in Walt Disney World's Marketing Art Department for an additional 4 years. I started in WDW in 1990, and in 1992 EPCOT celebrated its 10th Anniversary. As one of the character illustrators in that department, I was asked to illustrate the article about EPCOT's 10th that was featured in The Disney News magazine. They wanted a painting that would promote the celebration show that took place around The Seven Seas Lagoon in World Showcase, but in a cartoon style featuring the Disney characters. The show admittedly had some problems that would become apparent a couple weeks after its debut. For one thing, it took place at midday, and I have to say that fireworks are not too impressive at that time - more visible smoke than light display against the sunny Florida sky! Additionally, they had performers flying around in para-planes above the lagoon, dressed in Disney character costumes. Though the character heads were constructed of a lightweight mesh, rather than solid fibreglass like the walkaround versions, the pilots found that their vision was still not that great through the coloured mesh, and Disney decided to cancel that part of the show before the possibility of some tragic accident occurring!

I enjoyed doing the illustration immensely, and the article below shows the stages of the creative process in the way an illustration evolves from concept sketch through to final painting:


Eric Scales said...

I used to pre over every issue of Disney News as soon as I got it, and Suitable for Framing was a nice feature. I remember that was the first place that I really started noticing that different artists did the Disney characters in different ways. I always really liked this one and am thinking I'll have to go through my old issues and see which other paintings you did, just to see if I consistently gravitated towards your stuff- that's usually the case. Would love to see more of your Disney work if you get a chance.

Pete Emslie said...

Hey Eric,

That was the only painting I did for the Disney News magazine, I'm afraid. They generally used the Disney artists in California, but came to me for that EPCOT illustration since I was one of the WDW artists in Florida.

However, I did have a piece of art that was in many issues, though nobody really knew about it. The caricature of Disney archivist, Dave Smith, that ran as part of the masthead for his regular column, "Ask Dave", was part of a larger painted illustration featuring Dave with Donald Duck and his nephews that I had done many years earlier, several years before even having started my Disney career. I'd done it as a gift that I presented to Dave when he kindly had arranged for my first visit to the Disney Studio in 1981. I believe he had it up on the wall of his office right up until the day he retired just a couple of years ago.

Amir Avni said...

I'm pretty lucky to have the signed magazine ;)